Virtual event

Tips for effective virtual meeting rooms

Gilles Bertaux is co-founder and CEO of Livestorm, a video engagement platform founded in 2016 that runs meetings, webinars and virtual events from start to finish.

Gilles BertauxPhoto: Courtesy of Livestorm

The increasingly common hybrid working model, which combines remote time with time in the office, has some distinct advantages, particularly for work-life balance, but some areas may become more challenging. Think back to when everyone was in the office. We had impromptu brainstorming sessions around the lunch table, discussed strategy in the elevator, and solved complex problems in the white space between meetings. It all came so naturally.

When there’s physical distancing involved, we’re much less likely to have those chance encounters and opportunistic conversations. That doesn’t mean these types of discussions should be a thing of the past, though. They just need to be orchestrated a bit more as part of the new normal workflow. One of the easiest ways to do this is to create space and time in your existing virtual meetings by adding breakout rooms.

A breakout room is a dedicated space where a small group of people can come together to solve problems, have short discussions or network. In the physical world, we often see them at workshops, networking events, or even large conferences. They can be just as effective when implemented during virtual versions of these same types of events, as well as your daily group video meetings.

Whether online or IRL, breakout rooms are usually called by meeting hosts to give attendees a chance to discuss a topic in more detail. After a set period of time, they will return to the main event room and the conference will continue.

When part of a videoconference, breakout rooms provide a dedicated space where colleagues can discuss meeting topics in more detail. For example, some employees may have questions about a project you mentioned in the meeting, or you may have a brainstorming session with some key stakeholders. You can go to a virtual breakout room to have those specific discussions and then come back to the main session.

Not only does using a virtual breakout room help bring people together regardless of the physical distance between them, but it can also make it easier to avoid distraction. According to a recent survey of workplace distractions conducted by trade organization Mopria Alliance, employees experience some kind of distraction approximately twice per hour. Whether respondents were working from home or in the office, their attention was mostly diverted to the same things: checking email, browsing the internet, having unplanned conversations, and so on.

Just the fact that we’re constantly trying to deal with a flood of emails, Slack messages, task management notifications, and other intrusions doesn’t just cost us productivity, it stresses us out. And as more and more unread messages and unfinished tasks pile up, problem solving becomes more complicated, as does productive engagement with co-workers.

Of course, just creating a space doesn’t mean it will be used more efficiently. Here are four simple tips you can use to ensure you and your employees get the most out of virtual breakout rooms.

1. Focus on one problem at a time.
Unlike a virtual team meeting, which typically covers a variety of topics, breakout sessions should be more narrowly focused on a single issue. For example, a product development team might have an ongoing weekly meeting where they review the status of all their current projects. As part of this meeting, there might be a breakout room where the team involved in a particular project focuses on discussing potential solutions for a single issue, such as how to fix a recurring bug. This is a topic that wouldn’t have “fit” in the all hands call, but if it was “offline” it could have taken hours with emails and messages back and forth from cat.

2. Develop standards for breakout room etiquette.
As we have already noted… SQUIRREL! Now where was I? Oh, yes, distraction.

On average, twice an hour, something interrupts us. If you’re a team of 10 people on a call for an hour, that’s 20 separate instances of loss of concentration. We can drastically reduce this number and encourage attention by putting some simple ground rules in place.

To get started, it’s easy to ask all participants to log out of messaging and chat apps. They should also turn off all other notifications to make sure their co-workers don’t get a Pavlovian response to that familiar calendar reminder sound. And while the sudden appearance of children and pets can be fun, their screams and barks are not. Participants should therefore mute their microphone when not speaking.

3. Use a timer.
Another way to quite easily avoid having two distractions per hour ruining your meeting is to have a shorter meeting. In the “agile” method of project management, it is common for teams to have a daily stand-up meeting that lasts no more than 15 minutes. Believe it or not, setting this deadline as an internal rule helps those involved to self-organize.

Also, very few people look forward to long, drawn-out meetings — and anticipating boredom, they might be disconnected from the start. By setting clear boundaries, you let people know that this time will be used effectively and create a situation where they are ready, willing and able to focus on the topic at hand.

4. Take advantage of the tools available to facilitate the discussion.
In the physical world, we are setting up spaces for collaboration, providing tools and materials that will encourage active participation. The same should be true when setting up spaces for virtual interactions. Where we may have had a whiteboard, pens and pads of paper in the office, the breakout room can give attendees access to digital alternatives like screen sharing, virtual whiteboards and note-taking tools. Virtual breakout rooms also offer something we often don’t have IRL: the ability to record and playback the session so nothing gets lost, even if… SQUIRREL!

There’s a lot to be gained by adding breakout rooms to your existing virtual communication toolkit. Much like how colleges supplement huge lectures with separate, smaller workshops that provide an opportunity for deeper discussion and understanding of course material, breakout rooms help make large meetings more personal, meaningful and productive.

Instead of a long and boring monologue, attendees have the opportunity to interact, ask questions, provide feedback, expand on key points, and understand what exactly their action items are. Virtual meetings may never fully replace their in-person counterparts, but by adding breakout rooms, they can be just as effective, if not more so.